Education vision doesn't add up

So the Government is going to set up a "working party" to look again at teacher-pupil ratios in schools. I hope it is going to include some educational experts, and not just stack it with "analysts" and economists, because, as we now see, even this supposedly numerate approach to devising educational infrastructure can come up short.

And that's before we even begin to discuss its philosophical dimensions.

First things first. It appears those advising the Minister of Education - in this grand and somewhat counterintuitive exercise to improve our education system by increasing the class sizes for many of our children - can't count, an unfortunate failing for such learned policy wonks.

Either that or they conveniently overlooked the impact the changes contained in the Budget would have on our intermediate schools. Even Prime Minister John Key, while far from conceding the folly of the whole enterprise, has admitted that the moves would impose undue hardship on some schools.

In a pre-Budget statement, Education Minister Hekia Parata announced changes to class-size ratios in a move designed to divert some $60 million over four years from paying teachers into funding for teacher recruitment and training. Under the model, while some class sizes would decrease others would rise. Ms Parata expected 90% of schools either to gain or lose one teacher and 10% more than one.

"It is an explicit trade-off between quantity and quality," she said at the weekend.

Leaving aside for one moment that critical and revealing acknowledgment, drilling down into the new policy, the reason intermediate schools will be adversely affected - in some cases by losing up to five teachers - is that while it is proposed the overall teacher to pupil ratio be reduced from 1:29 to 1:27.5, the technology teacher ratio of 1:120 is to be eliminated altogether.

This means that if schools wish to continue to teach the range of subjects such as food, art, drama, technology and information and communications technology, which intermediate schools commonly do, they will have to cut teachers elsewhere and raise the class sizes.

One principal of an Auckland decile one school suggested that to maintain such classes - some of which were precisely what motivated his pupils to attend and achieve at school - he would have to lose 6.75 staff and increase class sizes from 27 to 37.

In Dunedin, intermediate school principals are sufficiently incensed by the prospect of having to make similar cuts, that some have begun to mutter about industrial action.

Well they might. For if there is one competitive advantage we can have in this hemisphere, it is in our education system. Tough times or not, education is the very last sector that should be cut. Only by and through enhanced and improved teaching and learning will this country set in place the underpinnings for an evolved 21st-century economy able to deliver not only long-term incremental wealth gains, but to address the many social issues we now face.

This is not the time to be talking of "trade-offs" in education. It is precisely the time we should be bending over backwards to invest in it; to improve and increase its resources.

And in what particular areas might we invest?

Areas that might enable our children to develop creative, innovative, original approaches to problem solving?

Or should we instead sit them down in class, tell them to shut up and force-feed them with rote learning?

I'm with Dunedin North principal Ross Leach when he says that the Government's push for a high-skilled, knowledge-based economy would be "doomed to fail" if schools took away the opportunities for pupils to develop the critical skills such classes helped develop.

I'm with Tahuna Intermediate principal Tony Hunter when he says: "This decision doesn't recognise the value of technology, creative thinking, problem solving and excitement of learning."

I'm with Balmacewen Intermediate principal Andrew Hunter when he says: "This decision is arrogant and short-sighted."

The cynical might think this is a backdoor attack on diversity of learning possibilities in our schools. There is already the much debated National Standards regime, with its weighted focus on literacy and numeracy. Required skills, granted, but at the expense of all else?

We have had the charter schools move, goodness knows to what end other than for someone somewhere to attempt to make a pile of dosh out of education, or to inculcate some religious persuasion or other.

Altogether it seems to add up to a bean counter's vision of education - additionally informed by business and economics - gauged by strictly measurable inputs and outputs.

It leaves nothing at all to that most critical and necessary of faculties - the imagination.


- Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer.


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